Book: "Why I Believe in Personal Immortality"

Author: Sir Oliver Lodge FRS

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- Chapter 4e -

Reminder About Ancient Examples of Oracular



          SHALL I conclude these illustrative examples of unorthodox mental phenomena by reminding readers of very familiar ancient instances of the practice of divination, and more especially of an apparently excellent test case arranged by one who in addition to the attainment of worldly prosperity had imbibed some of the wisdom of Solon. I will call it

An Early Effort at Psychical Research

It is sometimes casually said that Psychic Science is old. That is not true, but psychic phenomena are as old as humanity. Science itself is comparatively young, and Psychical Research is younger. Nevertheless it was not unknown to the Ancients. King Saul made a proper experiment by going to a medium anonymously; though the message he got was far from encouraging. The medium was a kindly person who attended to his bodily, needs, insisting on his having a meal, though she was in a state of alarm, firstly, at breaking the recently promulgated law, and, secondly, at getting a more vigorous manifestation than she had expected.

Instances of consulting domestic seers or mediums (Gad, Iddo, and others), among the Hebrew Kings, are innumerable, and often they seem to have given wise advice. (1) In classical times also, attempts to resort to occult practices were common enough. The remarkable experiment made by Croesus, who was king over a great part of Asia Minor, to test the power of some oracles before seriously consulting any of them, was fairly up to S.P.R. standard — assuming the account given by Herodotus is correct — so I will quote it from a citation in an old copy of Light.

Croesus sent messengers to six different oracles, presumably the best and most famous of his day. These were scattered over the known world, from Northern Greece to distant Libya. The messengers were sent by different ways, Croesus designing to make trial of what the oracles knew, in order that, if they should be found to know the truth, he might send a second time to inquire whether he should venture to make war on the Persians. He dispatched them to make trial of the oracles, with the following order: that, computing the days from the time of their departure from Sardis (his capital), they should consult the oracles on the hundredth day, by asking what Croesus, king of the Lydians, was then doing; and that they should bring him the answer of each oracle in writing.

Herodotus tells us that he does not know the six answers, but only the successful one from Delphi, given by "the Pythian," a trance-speaker of the famous Delphic oracle, the site of which is now familiar to many of our soldiers. He adds, however, that one other satisfied Croesus, namely, "the oracle of Amphiaraus" (at Oropus in Attica), as being a true oracle. But the answer from Delphi was preferred, probably on account of its definiteness. This Delphic answer became famous, and Herodotus gives it, couched as it was in hexameter verse. It runs somewhat thus:—

I know the number of the sands and the measure of the sea;

I understand the dumb, and hear him that does not speak;

The savour of the hard-shelled tortoise, boiled in brass with the flesh of lamb, strikes on my senses;

Brass is laid beneath it, and brass is put above.

The test proposed by Croesus is one that was carefully thought out, and special precautions were taken. For the messengers had been told to ask their question on the hundredth day from the date of their departure, and it was the same question for all. The question was — What was Croesus doing at that moment? Clearly that plan, if duly carried out, forbade all collusion and all probing by the oracle of the minds of the messengers. The messengers themselves were entirely ignorant: there could be no "mind reading." Possibly Croesus himself hardly knew what he would decide to be doing; and, being really anxious, was wise enough not to make up his mind till the last few days. "He bethought himself of what it would be impossible to discover or guess at, and on the appointed day he cut up a tortoise and a lamb, and boiled them together in a brazen cauldron and put on it a cover of brass."

The sequel, as everyone knows, is not so happy; for Croesus now trusted the Oracle unwisely. He sent another question relating to his projected invasion of Persia, received an oracular response capable of two interpretations, and acted on the wrong one with disastrous results. Though ultimately his conqueror, Cyrus, heating him just before his imminent execution exclaim on the warning wisdom of Solon (Call no man happy till he’s dead), magnanimously spared his life.

(1) See for instance: I Samuel xxx. 7, 8; 2 Samuel v. 23, 24; vii. 4; xxi. I; xxiv. II; I Kings iii. 5; I Chron. xvii. 3; xxi. 9; xxix. 29 ; 2 Chron. xviii. 14; xxix. 25 ; xxxiii. 18; xxxv. 15 ; Isaiah xxx. 10.



Contents / Foreword / Chapter 1  / Chapter 2  / Chapter 3 / Chapter 4 / Chapter 4a / Chapter 4b / Chapter 4c / Chapter 4d / Chapter 4e / Chapter 5 / Chapter 6 / Chapter 7

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